Empire Of The Winds

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I met up with Arlie Pierce, the veteran from Arkansas, in the airport. He smiled and chuckled easily as he told how he and his buddies in the Arkansas National Guard unit, like Captain Israel, had had no idea where they were headed when they got their orders. “We thought we were going to the Philippines, where all the beautiful girls were. Two colonels flipped a nickel, and we lost.” They found themselves in a very different place, with only light leather boots and summer uniforms to stave off the ferocious Aleutian winter. And worse than winter was coming.

After Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s carrierlaunched bombers raided Tokyo in April 1942, Japanese interest in the Aleutians intensified. The imperial staff could only guess where the bombers had taken off from, and suspecting the Aleutians, in June they moved to protect their flank by invading and occupying the rocky, wind-scoured, desolate islands of Attu and Kiska.

This attack was also a feint intended to divert American attention from the fleet massing for an assault on Midway Island in the central Pacific. The carriers Ryujo and Junyo were sent to the Aleutians, where they waited on the edge of a nasty storm 200 miles southwest of Unalaska, beyond the range of the U.S. Navy PBY patrol planes, until June 3, when a Japanese submarine in Unalaska Bay reported good weather. The carriers launched, but despite the report, storms forced half the strike force to turn back, leaving 21 planes to bomb Dutch Harbor.

The base suffered little physical damage during the attack, but some 50 Americans were killed or injured. Many of them were recent arrivals who died because they hadn’t yet gotten orders to report to bomb shelters during a raid. The next day, at four o’clock, the Japanese returned to find the defenders well dug in. Eighteen men died and 25 were injured, but the attackers lost a dozen planes. A seemingly minor action, all in all, but that same day, June 4, 1942, far to the south, the Battle of Midway began. The Japanese fleet took a terrible beating there, losing three carriers in what was the turning point of the Pacific war. Had the Ryujo and Junyo been at Midway instead of pecking away at the Aleutians, the outcome might have been very different.

The tempo of military construction on Unalaska increased, while the Navy ran bombing missions and patrols out of Dutch Harbor. A number of celebrities flew out to the Aleutians to entertain the troops, and one celebrity served there. The famous mystery writer Dashiell Hammett was stationed in Adak, but he visited many military outposts, including Dutch Harbor, as a member of the Army Signal Corps, editing the newspaper The Adakian . Hammett had joined the Army when he was 48 years old, and he celebrated his fiftieth birthday in Adak. Many of the troops called him Pops.

Oddly enough, the months Hammett spent in his far posting were among the happiest of his life. He found the islands “stimulating” and “starkly beautiful” and even thought about living there after the war. “I am still having more or less a love affair with this country,” he wrote to the playwright Lillian Hellman, with whom he had lived before enlisting. “Once on a boat with islands looming up half-real in the fog and rain I suddenly thought how nice it would have been to have been born on one of them and to be coming home to it.”

 
 
 
 

One of the most effective ways to place yourself in the shoes of a soldier who drew Aleutian duty is to drive the bumpy switchbacks up to Fort Schwatka, at Ulakta Head on Mount Ballyhoo, on the far side of Amaknak Island. The fort is one of four coastal defense posts the Army built to protect the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base. More than 100 buildings served this strongpoint, and Bobbie Lekanoff, owner of the Extra Mile Tours (who says she can tailor visits to every interest: birds, wildflowers, the war, or a mix of all three), took me in her SUV to see what remains.

Engineers designed Schwatka’s observation posts and command stations to withstand earthquakes and 100-mile-anhour winds. Most of the bunkers and wooden structures have collapsed, but the concrete-and-steel gun emplacements and lookouts still stand, some of them seeming to defy gravity on the vertical cliffs high above the ocean.

 

On my late-evening visit, light and shadow played across the black rock ravines and rich green vegetation that lined their bottoms. Snow buntings flitted about, and the omnipresent eagles looked down on us. Unhindered by the landscape, the wind knocked us around, and I could imagine what it would have been like pulling guard duty here in winter, staring out through the slits of the bunker, watching and waiting for an enemy that still had the run of half the world.